The Championship Tour is a long overdue celebration for Top Dog Entertainment. For fifteen years Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith has remained hidden behind a shroud of rap shout-outs and stray interviews, quietly burnishing his label’s star. The success of this venture is seen in the artistic diaspora from the heart of Compton. TDE has such well-developed, unique artists that it is difficult to identify an intrinsic TDE-ness in the label’s acts. ScHoolboy Q’s snarling, grimey raps are more reminiscent of the A$AP Mob than of Jay Rock, his gangsta rap counterpart. Meanwhile SZA captures a younger, more diverse generational uncertainty, and Kendrick Lamar is inventing intersectional genres and philosophies with each album. The Championship Tour reins in this talent under the TDE banner, using Kendrick Lamar’s superstardom to boost the label’s lesser acts— and the results are stunning.

There was no mask of humility at Madison Square Garden the night of the concert. This tour celebrates victory. Victory at the Grammys, victory on the Billboard charts, and victory over the esteem of Pulitzer Prize committees. If “winning” sounds like a petty unifying theme, know that TDE curtails the hubris with a whimsical flair. The concert is modeled as a high school athletic event. Banners hang down from the stage highlighting accomplishments like SZA’s platinum sales and Kendrick Lamar’s multiple Grammy nominations. A honey-voiced announcer reads out the artist’s names before they take the stage. There will be no better venue for this tour. Madison Square Garden is the sacred temple of America’s biggest winners, a place where performers and athletes prove their greatness before (and for) a whole country. Yes, winning is the theme, but TDE makes this feel like the fans victory as well.

The concert opened with SiR, who performed a few songs off of his latest project, November. His performance, concise and restrained, was met with obligatory enthusiasm and cheers. It was times like this— Jay Rock’s anti-pop, thug rap, Ab-Soul’s cryptic, tangled conspiracies— that challenged the sense of communal celebration. If TDE winning means everyone wins, why did their first athletes feel like the J.V. team? Like openers, not their labelmates equals? Even with restrictive, ten-minute setlists, some artists honed their performances into sharp jolts of energy. Jay Rock made strategic use of Kendrick-featured songs like “King’s Dead” to hype the crowd up for the premiere of the "Win" music video off his upcoming album, Redemption. Isaiah Rashad made slow, swaying songs like “4r Da Squaw” and “Free Lunch” feel like bangers. In between performances he marched across the stage making jokes with an ease and comfort matched only by Kendrick Lamar’s performance later in the night. 

Schoolboy Q, in contrast, leaned too heavily on his substantial discography of hits. Lethargic and unapologetically stoned, he fell into the rapper’s trap of blasting your own song as a background track while you dance around wildly. It is a testament to the quality of songs like “Man of the Year” and “THat Part” that the crowd could become riled up listening to them in spite of the performer. He made up for his poor rapping with a characteristically irreverent, and hilarious, take on the concert’s theme. Schoolboy Q’s athletic persona was a golfer. His performance was a slapstick-y, farcical jab at the priggish, moneyed, white sport.

A close second in theatrics was SZA. She sprung from a darkened stage in the middle of a small boxing ring to deliver songs exclusively off of her masterful debut, Ctrl. Her boxing shorts, cut like a skirt, paired with the gentle ebb of her dancing, were a shock of sensuality to the venue. But the audience had no problem making the transition; they stood to dance, too; they sung along; a lovestruck guy next to me screamed “My queen!” Unfortunately her voice was badly damaged from tonsillitis (damage she recently tweeted may be permanent). In spite of the injury, she improvised scat-like singing and subtle vocal inflections that gave raw, syncopated renditions of songs like “Normal Girl” and “Drew Barrymore”. Her skillful maneuvering around the setback showed why she quickly became TDE’s second biggest act.

The venue was tense with anticipation by the time Kendrick stepped on stage. "DNA", with it's spinning vocal loop, blasted us into his performance. The beginning of his set was at once solemn and electric; I think people needed a few songs to adjust to the presence of the greatest rapper of this generation. All throughout his performance he showed an awareness of this effect. He commanded people to cheer; he let the crowd rap "HUMBLE." a cappella; he watched them rap  "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" for almost a whole verse, confident they wouldn't miss a lyric. Yet there was nothing egotistical to this. Kendrick constantly reminded the fans that they had contributed to TDE's ascendance, and to keep  good vibes going. He rewarded the audience with the most technically precise performance on the bill, sticking to some of his concert staples like "Backseat Freestyle" and "Alright". He closed out the concert with "HUMBLE.", a performance that concluded with the whole TDE roster joining the stage. This was a Kendrick concert, but Kendrick knows how to make space for the whole world to stand beside him.